Modern philosophy shows that most atrocities are committed by normal people—not evil ones

Zachary Biondi in Quartz:

ScreenHunter_2596 Feb. 16 19.24That decency always overcomes evil is an axiom of American exceptionalism. We gird ourselves with quotes about the “arc of history,” spoken by exceptional individuals or presidents who were ‘presidential,’ and wait for history to bend. When we—the people Donald Trump has in mind as the “true Americans”—think about past atrocities like American segregation or Nazi Germany, we are confident that had we lived then, we would have been on the frontlines fighting against evil.

Evil is what monsters and terrorists do—it’s tangible violence carried out by real bodies against real bodies. Meanwhile, we sit in our homes, offices, and churches, and hope our government keeps us safe from the “evil.”

We assume that evil arises out of contempt, misplaced pride, or even mental disorders, but we are wrong. Decency and evil are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the greatest atrocities require masses of decent people.

In 1961 philosopher Hannah Arendt attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a man who helped carry out the Holocaust genocide. He was responsible for unspeakable horror. Yet, as Arendt observed, Eichmann was not a vicious or menacing monster. He wasn’t snarling and spewing hate. He was normal—a “half a dozen psychiatrists” had even certified it. He was like anyone you might pass on the street or sit next to on a bus. She writes that “he personally never had anything whatever against the Jews,” yet he oversaw their systematic execution with no compunction.

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Rasputin: full of ecstasy and fire

5fbcf444-f35b-11e6-a45f-cc1b99ad256cStephen Lovell at The Times Literary Supplement:

We are left pondering several related questions: how did Rasputin survive as long as 1916; what was it about him that made the imperial couple shut their eyes to his ostensible turpitude; and what did his influence on them amount to? The reasons for Rasputin’s longevity lie partly within the imperial couple themselves. Nicholas was reserved and diffident, Alexandra was mystically inclined and pathologically private, but they both believed absolutely in the prerogatives of autocracy. They craved emotional support from someone who was not part of or beholden to the court elite around them. As Smith points out, Rasputin was not the first “Our Friend” at the imperial residence of Tsarskoe Selo: in the early 1900s Nicholas and Alexandra had been intimate with a renowned occultist named Monsieur Philippe, parting with him only after being told repeatedly of the damage he was doing to their reputation. It was only a matter of time before the Frenchman was replaced by someone closer to home. Rasputin was the right candidate at the right moment: as an authentic Russian peasant, a native of Siberia, that bastion of fearless and uncorrupted national values, he offered the imperial couple a direct line to “the people” and indulged their belief that they ruled in the interests of common folk and in defiance of treacherous urban elites. Perhaps Nicholas and Alexandra were not entirely misguided: the elites of court and high officialdom were hardly the most reliable source of disinterested information or intelligent insight, as Smith shows us at many turns.

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The true radical genius of Monteverdi

18febleadpicAlexandra Coghlan at The Spectator:

‘Eppur si muove’ — And yet it moves. Galileo’s defiant insistence that the Earth revolves round the Sun, his refusal to submit to the Inquisition, is a familiar one. It’s the battle cry not of a reformer but of a revolutionary, a passionate teller of truths.

It’s a credo he shared with composer Claudio Monteverdi. Born barely three years after the astronomer, Monteverdi faced his own inquisition. Defying those who would make music an immoveable sphere, bound in place by harmonic proprieties and structural conventions, he made works that rejected tidy formalism in favour of messy, fleshy humanity. His was music that moved in every sense, that lived as vividly as those who inspired it. He may celebrate his 450th anniversary this year, but Monteverdi was the first modern composer.

‘It solicits the ear and roughly, harshly strikes it… those dissonances are crude, ugly and insupportable.’ Provoking critical scorn with his experimentation long before Stockhausen or Boulez, Monteverdi’s musical prescience cannot be overstated.

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Norman Mailer’s Fatal Friendship

6fdc1e4896d73a0535bcf24511eda64808ad7a0eSarah Weinman at The New Republic:

Two men in particular had reason to celebrate the evening of July 9, 1981. One received the Pulitzer Prize the year prior, having refashioned his literary career after a series of controversies, failures, and skirmishes. The other was barely a month out of prison, a murderer whose letters, collected in book form, promised an inside look at the horrors of incarcerated life.

The latter was Jack Henry Abbott. His book was toasted with white wine that July night at Il Mulino in Greenwich Village. The former was Norman Mailer, who had provided the introduction, an extended thank-you for Abbott’s help on writing that Pulitzer winner, The Executioner’s Song.

The celebration was short-lived. Nine days later, the day before In the Belly of the Beast received a rave review in theNew York Times, Abbott was a fugitive. He had murdered again. Freedom evaporated. Once captured, in late September, Abbott would never see the outside world again.

Writers like Michael Mewshaw and Felice Picano assigned blame to Mailer in subsequent essays on Abbott’s book, arguing Mailer went out of his way to ignore Abbott’s lengthy criminal record stretching back to age eleven.

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Jersey Does Its Nails While Colorado Runs

Sheherzad Preisler in Tonic:

StatebystateSocial-media-driven #fitspo is all the rage, so why not measure the nation's health using Twitter? A new study does just that in a brutal state-by-state comparison of calorie burn. The Lexicocalorimeter creates a ratio of caloric input to output in geotagged locations. It does so by sifting through countless tweets, looking for mentions of food and physical activities. The former can be anything from "nacho cheese Doritos" to "tofu"; the latter ranges from "The Carlton Dance" to "bear hunting." The numbers used to calculate the calories found in certain foods—caloric input—and calories burned during physical activities—caloric output—are based on generalized values. The study, led by researcher Peter Dodds and a team of scientists at the University of Vermont, provides an analysis of each state. As it turns out, New Jersey burns fewer calories than the average state; "getting my nails done" is the most prevalent activity on its low-intensity list and "running" appears less frequently than America's overall average. Colorado's input-to-output ratio was the most balanced of all the states (meaning they burned lots of the calories they inhaled), while Mississippi's was the least balanced.

Analyzing 50 million tweets from 2011 and 2012, the researchers found that the largest contributor to calories burned nationwide was "watching TV or movies" (calories burned!), and the food responsible for most calories consumed in each state was pizza. The only exceptions were in Wyoming, whose largest caloric contributor was cookies, and Mississippi, where ice cream was the calorie-bomb of choice. Some results from the analysis come as no surprise—that a lot of people note eating lobster in Maine and Massachusetts, for example. Other results strike as more arbitrary, as with the relative popularity of talking on the phone, showering, and sitting in Delaware, Virginia, and Tennessee, respectively.

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John Lewis…is a genuine American hero and moral leader

From Roll Call Magazine:

Jl_0Often called "one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced," John Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties, and building what he calls "The Beloved Community” in America. His dedication to the highest ethical standards and moral principles has won him the admiration of many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the United States Congress. He has been called "the conscience of the U.S. Congress,” and Roll Call magazine has said, "John Lewis…is a genuine American hero and moral leader who commands widespread respect in the chamber.”

He was born the son of sharecroppers on February 21, 1940, outside of Troy, Alabama. He grew up on his family's farm and attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama. As a young boy, he was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which he heard on radio broadcasts. In those pivotal moments, he made a decision to become a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Ever since then, he has remained at the vanguard of progressive social movements and the human rights struggle in the United States. As a student at Fisk University, John Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1961, he volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. Lewis risked his life on those Rides many times by simply sitting in seats reserved for white patrons. He was also beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested by police for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the South. During the height of the Movement, from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was named Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form. SNCC was largely responsible for organizing student activism in the Movement, including sit-ins and other activities.

While still a young man, John Lewis became a nationally recognized leader. By 1963, he was dubbed one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. At the age of 23, he was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963. In 1964, John Lewis coordinated SNCC efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The following year, Lewis helped spearhead one of the most seminal moments of the Civil Rights Movement. Hosea Williams, another notable Civil Rights leader, and John Lewis led over 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. They intended to march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as "Bloody Sunday." News broadcasts and photographs revealing the senseless cruelty of the segregated South helped hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence.

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month)

Pessoptimism of the Will: On the Absurd Fictions of Emile Habiby

Anjuli Raza Kolb in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_2595 Feb. 15 17.48There is a word that has been hovering around me like a familiar since the morning after the U.S. presidential election. It comes from the title of the Palestinian novelist and politician Emile Habiby’s bizarre and wonderful 1974 book, The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (al-mutasha’il, a mashup of mutafa’il [optimism] and mutasha’im [pessimism]). Through the oxymoronic condition of pessoptimism, the novel—which Edward Said styled the national epic of Palestine—describes life for a fairly ordinary Arab on and across the borders of Israel, roughly from the Nakba in 1948 through the June War of 1967. The facts of this ordinary life for Saeed, whose first name means “happy,” include separation from his family, a politically expedient marriage arranged by a party boss, a stint in jail for overzealous loyalty to the Israeli state, the loss of his child and wife, multiple relocations, forced anti-communist spying, the constant threat of expulsion, the stripping of rights, and, most importantly, a radical, deranging solitude.

In one of the letters to an anonymous correspondent in which he chronicles his adventures, Saeed the Pessoptimist explains how he inhabits his name under such conditions: “I don’t differentiate between optimism and pessimism and am quite at a loss as to which of the two characterizes me. When I awake each morning I thank the Lord he did not take my soul during the night. If harm befalls me during the day, I thank Him that it was no worse.” A self-consciously quixotic type, Saeed compares his adventures to those of Cervantes’s antihero, as well as to Candide’s. Fellow Palestinian writer Salma Jayyusi situates the Pessoptimist in a genealogy of three archetypes of Arabic literature going back to the eighth century: the picaresque hero, the fool, and the traitor/informer.

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Iron Age Potters Carefully Recorded Earth’s Magnetic Field — By Accident

Rae Ellen Bichell at NPR:

ScreenHunter_2594 Feb. 15 17.15About 3,000 years ago, a potter near Jerusalem made a big jar. It was meant to hold olive oil or wine or something else valuable enough to send to the king as a tax payment. The jar's handles were stamped with a royal seal, and the pot went into the kiln.

Over the next 600 years, despite wars destructive enough to raze cities, potters in the area kept making ceramic tax jars, each one stamped with whatever seal represented the ruler du jour.

They didn't know it, but in the process, the ancient potters were not just upholding centuries of tax bureaucracy.

As a group of archaeologists and geophysicists wrote Monday in the journal PNAS, they were also creating a long-lasting record of activity some 2,000 miles beneath their feet. And that record is now yielding clues to a big mystery about this planet: how its magnetic field has changed over time.

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Serial Killers Should Fear This Algorithm

Robert Kolker at Bloomberg:

ScreenHunter_2593 Feb. 15 16.59On Aug. 18, 2010, a police lieutenant in Gary, Ind., received an e-mail, the subject line of which would be right at home in the first few scenes of a David Fincher movie: “Could there be a serial killer active in the Gary area?”

It isn’t clear what the lieutenant did with that e-mail; it would be understandable if he waved it off as a prank. But the author could not have been more serious. He’d attached source material—spreadsheets created from FBI files showing that over several years the city of Gary had recorded 14 unsolved murders of women between the ages of 20 and 50. The cause of each death was the same: strangulation. Compared with statistics from around the country, he wrote, the number of similar killings in Gary was far greater than the norm. So many people dying the same way in the same city—wouldn’t that suggest that at least a few of them, maybe more, might be connected? And that the killer might still be at large?

The police lieutenant never replied. Twelve days later, the police chief, Gary Carter, received a similar e-mail from the same person. This message added a few details. Several of the women were strangled in their homes. In at least two cases, a fire was set after the murder. In more recent cases, several women were found strangled in or around abandoned buildings. Wasn’t all of this, the writer asked, at least worth a look?

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‘Montaigne: A Life’ By Philippe Desan

K10834Jonathan Rée at Literary Review:

One of the greatest game-changers in French literature was the Essaisof Michel de Montaigne, which first appeared in 1580. The title itself was a linguistic innovation, announcing the birth of a new literary form in which serious topics would be dealt with in a style that was tentative, ironic and anecdotal, rather than rigorous, serious and systematic. Thanks to Montaigne, intellectual argument would be liberated from the chapter and verse of the scholar’s treatise and the repetitive rote of lecturers in schools. It would become indistinguishable from the spontaneous conversation of civilised companions sauntering round town or galloping over the countryside or sitting at a well-furnished table.

The content of the Essais followed the form: a celebration of ‘diversity of judgement’, as Montaigne put it, by means of ‘fooling and fantastication’. All of us, he said, ‘are, I know not how, double in ourselves, which is the cause that what we believe we do not believe, and cannot separate ourselves from what we condemn’. For him, doubt and hesitation were the mark of true wisdom, and resolute certainty was ‘for lunatics’.

The Essais were a game-changer for English literature too. Francis Bacon tried to match their conscious nonchalance in his own Essays in 1597, and in 1603 they were ‘done into English’ by John Florio to enormous effect. Florio’s translation was a linguistic revolution in itself: it is the source of almost two hundred new words in the Oxford English Dictionary, from ‘abecedarian’ and ‘amusing’ to ‘sophisticated’ and ‘unfoolish’. It also opened a new vista of fantasy, exoticism and ruminative indirection, from Shakespeare’s Tempest to Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and Thomas Browne’sReligio Medici.

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What is fascism?

FascismCynthia Haven at The Book Haven:

I was talking online with friend and fellow blogger Artur Sebastian Rosman about the current obsessions in the news. One thing we both have noticed: suddenly everything and everyone is being called a “fascist.” But what, exactly, does the word mean nowadays, other than an all-purpose pejorative, something pleasant to scream at your opponents?

We went back the expert, George Orwell. Here’s what he said: “Of all the unanswered questions of our time, perhaps the most important is: ‘What is Fascism?’ One of the social survey organizations in America recently asked this question of a hundred different people, and got answers ranging from ‘pure democracy’ to ‘pure diabolism’. In this country if you ask the average thinking person to define Fascism, he usually answers by pointing to the German and Italian régimes. But this is very unsatisfactory, because even the major Fascist states differ from one another a good deal in structure and ideology.”

Seems it stumped him, too:

It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.

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Malcolm Guite’s religious portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

51rYpboyQjL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Frances Wilson at The New Statesman:

Malcolm Guite is the chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge, and reading Mariner: a Voyage With Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a little like saying grace before discussing Coleridge. This is Coleridge as a middle-aged Anglican as opposed to Coleridge the opium addict or the creator of Christabel, literature’s first lesbian vampire. Guite argues that the two-volume life of the poet by Richard Holmes, “brilliant” though it is, does not draw out his contribution to Christian thinking, which is the purpose of the present book. “Prayer”, he writes, is the poem’s “central theme and prominent at all its turning points”. The ballad is a narrative of sin and atonement: when the mariner kills the albatross he experiences profound guilt and isolation. He finds repentance in the blessing of the water-snakes; when his ship goes down “like lead into the sea”, his submersion is a baptism.

Guite is by no means the first to interpret “The Ancient Mariner” as an allegory of man’s fall: critics have usually divided between pagan, for whom the poem is a drug-fuelled nightmare or an account of debilitating guilt, and Christian, for whom it offers hope. For Guite, the mariner’s “redemption” lies in returning to “the land of the Trinity”, where his new mission is “to tell his own transformative tale to those who need to hear it”. A different interpretation of the mariner’s life on land is to see it as a form of purgatory: a pariah, he is doomed to roam the world repeatedly confessing his crime – if killing an albatross with a bow and arrow can be called a crime (depending on your interpretation of the poem).

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The choices made by white men, who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost status

Toni Morrison in The New Yorker:

Aftermath-Morrison-897Under slave laws, the necessity for color rankings was obvious, but in America today, post-civil-rights legislation, white people’s conviction of their natural superiority is being lost. Rapidly lost. There are “people of color” everywhere, threatening to erase this long-understood definition of America. And what then? Another black President? A predominantly black Senate? Three black Supreme Court Justices? The threat is frightening.

In order to limit the possibility of this untenable change, and restore whiteness to its former status as a marker of national identity, a number of white Americans are sacrificing themselves. They have begun to do things they clearly don’t really want to be doing, and, to do so, they are (1) abandoning their sense of human dignity and (2) risking the appearance of cowardice. Much as they may hate their behavior, and know full well how craven it is, they are willing to kill small children attending Sunday school and slaughter churchgoers who invite a white boy to pray. Embarrassing as the obvious display of cowardice must be, they are willing to set fire to churches, and to start firing in them while the members are at prayer. And, shameful as such demonstrations of weakness are, they are willing to shoot black children in the street. To keep alive the perception of white superiority, these white Americans tuck their heads under cone-shaped hats and American flags and deny themselves the dignity of face-to-face confrontation, training their guns on the unarmed, the innocent, the scared, on subjects who are running away, exposing their unthreatening backs to bullets. Surely, shooting a fleeing man in the back hurts the presumption of white strength? The sad plight of grown white men, crouching beneath their (better) selves, to slaughter the innocent during traffic stops, to push black women’s faces into the dirt, to handcuff black children. Only the frightened would do that. Right?

These sacrifices, made by supposedly tough white men, who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost status.

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month)

Daniel Dennett: ‘I begrudge every hour I have to spend worrying about politics’

Carole Cadwalladr in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_2592 Feb. 15 10.08I meet Daniel Dennett, the great American rationalist, on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, as good a day as any to contemplate the fragility of civilisation in face of overwhelming technological change, a topic he examines in his latest book.

Dennett is a singular figure in American culture: a white-haired, white-bearded 74-year-old philosopher whose work has mined the questions that erupt at the places where science, technology and consciousness meet. His subject is the brain and how it creates meaning and what our brains will make of a future that includes AI and robots. He’s in London with his wife, Susan, to mark the publication of his latest book – From Bacteria to Bach and Back – and I find him in a rented flat in Notting Hill, scowling at his laptop. “I was about to send a tweet,” he says. “Something like, ‘Republican senators are in an enviable position. How often does anybody get a real opportunity to become a national hero? Who’s going to step up and enter the pages of history?’”

Dennett has the intellectual heft for his pronouncements to have impact: a star speaker on the TED circuit and friend to many of the Silicon Valley elite, he’s also that rare breed, the mythical creature of publishers’ dreams – a writer of meaty, serious books that also sell.

It’s clear that his latest was conceived and written in a different time. Dennett, a close ally of Richard Dawkins (and a similarly quasi-militant atheist), had decided to look at culture from an evolutionary perspective. His last chapter, where he contemplates our technological future, was intended to be thought-provoking. Instead, it’s quietly terrifying: we’re only just starting to wake up to the potential outcomes of the technology that we’re inventing but increasingly don’t understand, he writes. Human co-operation and trust aren’t givens. They’re the byproducts of a cultural process that can be reversed. And civilisation is far, far more fragile than any of us want to realise.

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How does our brain process fear? Study investigates

Ana Sandoiu in Medical News Today:

ScreenHunter_2591 Feb. 15 10.01From an evolutionary perspective, fear and anxiety are quite useful. These deeply ingrained emotions used to protect our ancestors from predators, and in our times the "fight-or-flight" response is still a healthy reaction to dangerous situations.

When fear is proportionate to the danger a person is in, it is a normal, adaptive response. However, some of us have exaggerated reactions to stressful situations.

As the National Institute of Mental Health explains, when the fear response is disproportionate or lasts a lot longer than what is normally expected from the situation – to a point where it interferes with an individual's well-being and daily functioning – it is classed as an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders include a wide range of conditions that reportedly affect 18 percent of the adult population in the United States.

Because we share some of the brain's architecture with our fellow mammals and we have a similar response to fear, studying animal models has provided scientists with important insights into the neuroscientific basis for fear processing.

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Roger Penrose and the vision thing

Philip Ball in Prospect:

ScreenHunter_2590 Feb. 14 16.40Scientists exhausted by the relentless demand to “demonstrate impact” and churn out peer-reviewed papers find ways of cheering themselves up. A popular consolation is to imagine reviewers’ reports on Einstein’s “grant application” for his work on special relativity, condemning his revolutionary thoughts as sheer speculation, devoid of any practical application, and worthy of no funding at all.

Lost golden ages are rarely as golden as we remember: back in 1905 Einstein wasn’t funded either, but still working in the Swiss patent office. The rueful jokes do, however, make a valid point about the way conservatism and bandwagon-riding often dictate progress in scientific careers today. Now you need polish, pizzazz, and state-of-the-art facilities. Gone are the days when it was possible to conduct cutting-edge experiments, as Ernest Rutherford did, with little more than sealing wax and string. But something has been lost in the face of the incessant need to score CV points, create spin-off companies, and descend into ever-narrower specialisms. The greatest of scientists, like physicist Erwin Schrödinger, have often thought profoundly outside their own particular specialisms; others, like Francis Crick, one half of the pair who unravelled the mysteries of DNA and partly inspired by Schrödinger, had the versatility to switch fields entirely.

Many virtues of that vanished age, before the intellectually narrowing pressures on today’s careers, are preserved in the person of the veteran British mathematical physicist, Roger Penrose—a theorist of black holes and quantum particles, sometime collaborator of Stephen Hawking, and an unlikely best-selling author. I met the 85-year-old don in the new Mathematical Institute at Oxford, where he is still cooking up challenging new ideas. You have to enter the building across a tiling scheme Penrose invented in the 1970s, which covers the courtyard in a pattern that seems to be orderly but can never quite repeat itself.

Although his insights are often fiendishly technical and expressed in eye-watering mathematics, Penrose is irrepressibly eclectic in his learning.

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